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“High school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history always comes in last. They consider it “the most irrelevant” of 21 school subjects, not applicable to life today. “Borr-r-ring” is the adjective they apply to it. When they can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even when they are forced to take history, they repress it, so every year or two another study decries what our 17-year-olds don’t know… “
And so begins James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
The study of society and our collective past is important. It helps us understand ourselves, how we got to the present, and the world around us. It’s interesting that, as a society, we show a great interest in our culture and history. Whether it be historical novels and nonfiction, games, television programs, feature films, museum exhibits, or Broadway shows, American audiences — young and old — are fascinated with the “story of us.”
Yet our students sleep through the classes that present it.
I came to writing books for kids through a very peculiar path. My journey began when my son discovered Minecraft.
According to Common Sense Media, “Minecraft is an open-ended, exploration- and creation-focused environment. Players can create items and buildings from scratch using materials they harvest from the world around them.” My son was very eager to be a part of this new phenomenon. In fact, if you asked him, he’d tell you he had to have it or he was going to die!
My wife and I put up a good fight, but our son was relentless. We ultimately caved and bought him the game. We were surprised and quite pleased with what he did with this new digital power. He built incredible structures, created cities and castles of glass, and floating giants. We’d never seen him so creative or engaged. It was fantastic.
It’s not (just) the sleeping in, the family getaways, and the long, unhurried meals with friends that make me love summer. It’s that I get the time to think.
Folks who work outside classrooms underestimate the immediacy and urgency of teaching. The daily press to prepare and adjust lessons, the ongoing grind of grading and giving feedback. The weeds are tall and thick when one is in the midst of the school year.
Then comes summer. I can step back and rethink my practice. I can consider, with sufficient bandwidth, what I really want students to get out of the next 180 days, during which I get to support and lead them.
Is it possible for learning to be so compelling that school wouldn’t have to be compulsory? Is it possible for our classes to offer learning experiences that students would actually opt into?
This is the challenge that was stuck in my head going into this past school year.
Steve Masson, a high school teacher connected to the Hudson Valley Writing Project, spent the last three weeks of school working with his juniors and seniors on a #WhatsMyIssue video project in connection with Letters to the Next President 2.0. Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2P 2.0) is an initiative that empowers young people, 13-18, to voice their opinions and ideas on the issues that matter to them in the coming U.S. Presidential election.
This school year, I’ve been on a journey to put my students at the center of our learning. That means finding ways to make the learning meaningful to my students as people — that is, personalized. And it means being responsive to their needs as learners — in other words, customized.
Most of my efforts to meet this call have meant developing completely new units, and that’s been exhausting and won’t scale for teachers with multiple preps or those seeking life-balance. Moving into the fourth quarter of this school year, I sought support. I sat down with colleagues to learn how to work toward these ends from our existing curriculum for 10th grade English. The unit from which we worked had two summative assessments: a literary analysis essay on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and a multimedia presentation based on a social issue.
I came back from my morning run completely energized. I took my headphones off and continued to puzzle over Sugata Mitra’s compelling segment on the TED Radio Hour, Unstoppable Learning, which I had been listening to and which suggested that in many ways, teachers are getting in the way of learning.
A tough pill for me — a teacher of seven years — to swallow.
I scrawled some thoughts in my journal — “students in pursuit of learning,” “fostering curiosity,” “CHOICE,” “unstoppable learning…” — and grinned as I imagined what this transformation could look like in my classroom. This always happens, I reflected. I get the best ideas when I have more time to listen, to read, to run. I always learn the most when I have space just to think. As a new mother and a classroom teacher, lead teacher, mentor, fellow, friend, and wife, my days are jam packed. Further, my time is often completely scheduled. The time and space to read and think is few and far between. But making space for it is so, so important.